Is Boston the most innovative city in the world?  Or is it number 8?  Does Boston even make the top 10?

The answer to those questions is yes, yes, and no, but it depends on who you ask.

According to the Innovation Cities Program, Boston is indeed the most innovative city in the world.  Although when you look at the scores, we seem to be tied with San Francisco, Paris, and New York, so I don’t know what gave us the bump.

These two schools probably helped get Boston ranked #1.

According to Forbes, Boston is an innovative city, yes, but only ranks 8th among US cities, behind San Jose, Austin, Raleigh, San Francisco, Seattle, San Diego, and Madison.

Finally, the Intelligent Community Forum doesn’t have Boston cracking their list of the top 7 Intelligent Communities, which this year focused on innovation. (Side-note: Who does a top 7 list?)  Really?  The Boston-Cambridge one-two punch of the oldest public school system in the nation and some of the most highly respected universities in the world don’t make the cut as an “intelligent community?

Boston Latin School, the first public school in the country.

So what gives?  Three different sources place Boston at three different places in the rankings.  If a city is truly innovative, shouldn’t its rank be pretty consistent across the board?  In theory, yes, but one problem with rankings like this is that they each place different emphasis on different criteria.  There is no International Governing Body for the Ranking of Innovative Cities.  Independent groups independently assess and score cities based on criteria of their own selection.  If I disagree with a choice they’ve made, I could just as easily create my own list with cities in the order I deem as being correct.

I think one of the underlying issues at hand is use of the terms “innovation” and “innovative.”  BostInno.com (aptly named for this discussion) has a great article about what innovation really is, and I found myself nodding along in agreement as I read:

I’ll be the first to agree that we need to distinguish between genuinely world changing  innovation, and sugar water. But I believe it’s still important to adopt the innovation lense (sic) outside of the typical realm of scientific breakthrough and its subsequent applications. Once you think about technological innovation as new, better recipes, it becomes possible to adopt the innovator’s mindset not just in the commercialization of science, but in our business models, in policy, and throughout our lives. These are all spheres in which we have improvements to make and problems to solve. And that’s the whole point of innovation. via Walter Frick, BostInno.com

To me, that sums things up pretty well.  Innovation has its fingers in every piece of our economy and culture.  Recognizing that we can all be innovators encourages us to push the boundaries in whatever sector of the economy we find ourselves. It follows that the most innovative city would be the one in which the most people consider themselves innovators, regardless of what their job title might be.

Is that really something you can capture in a ranking?  I’d argue it’s not.  Sure, you could poll every inhabitant of a city, ask them if they feel like they are an innovator, and go with that but (1) that’s not very practical and (2) some people might not even know they are an innovator or think of themselves as such.

What makes a city innovative is encouraging the inclusion of new ideas in every sector: technology, healthcare, the arts, finance, education, hospitality, right on up to City Hall.  Any city that does that is innovative.  Trying to quantify all of those things with scores seems unnecessary.

The area shaded green is what should be designated as Boston's Innovation District.

What’s more important is making sure that every city – including Boston – knows what it should be doing to move forward in a 21st century economy.  Boston is the engine for the entire region’s economy, and that engine needs to be firing on all 617,594 cylinders.  Boston should be working to out-innovate every other city in the country, and those cities should be trying just as hard to best us.  And that spirited competition is what will push the US economy back into the black and back into our leadership position in the global economy.

– Nick Downing, Future Boston Research Coordinator

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About Future Boston Alliance

Future Boston Alliance is a non-profit organization seeking to revolutionize our city's creative economy. By advocating for new talent and businesses and holding educational events, we aim to make Boston a hub for collaboration, innovation, and culture.

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